Today is the 100th anniversary of the fateful day that Captain “Titus” Oates announced to his frozen, exhausted, and desperate colleagues that immortal line…
“I am just going outside and may be some time”
He knew, struggling with severe frostbite, that he was a millstone around the neck of his team. He knew that without him, they stood a chance of making it back alive (although we know this was not to be). He knew too, as did his friends, that he was off to his death. The man is remembered as a hero.
On yesterday’s “Today Programme” on Radio 4 they were discussing this supposed act of heroism. I say supposed as Cambridge’s professor of classics, Mary Beard, suggested this kind of behaviour far too wimpy to be recognised as heroic by those masters of Heroism, the ancient Greeks. It was instead suggested by the presenter that this was a very particular type of heroism unique to the English Edwardian context, not seen before and not to be seen again.
At one moment, as the physically weaker member of the team, Oates’s life was the responsibility of his colleagues. At the next, he took responsibility for the release of their potential to live. A fundamental shift of power took place and he was the one that assumed it through overpowering love and sacrifice. The story of this brave man, willing to forego his life for the common good and that of his friends is surely a message that reaches across time and culture? If it were not so, Christianity
would could not be a global religion.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” John 15:13
Love, and the humility and selflessness it engenders, is what truly makes a hero. The Greeks could be forgiven for not understanding this, they lived before Christ set the ultimate precedent. But since the day an innocent voluntarily sacrificed his life for the salvation of all humanity and out of duty to His Father, the model will not go away. It peppers our literature, crowds into our cinema and television, nestles triumphantly amidst the doom and gloom of our newspapers and lives and breathes in all manner of conflict zone.
Charles Moore considers the term Hero to be overused. That it is too often used inappropriately may be an issue. Overused though? I do hope not, I look to use it much more.